Constant Variables

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Some growers were raised into it, and for some, their customers demand it from them. But for Lloyd Traven of Peace Tree Farm, going organic was more like an epiphany.

Traven vividly remembers the moment that forced him to rethink his approach as a grower:

After delivering herbs to a customer, Traven recalls standing around chatting with the buyer and watching what the customers were doing with the herbs.

“The first thing they do is rub them and then sniff their hands. Second, they start picking the leaves off the plants and start chewing them.”

This struck a nerve with Traven. “Every instinct I had was screaming at me to yell ‘No, don’t do that! This came out of my greenhouse. You don’t want to eat this.’”

Think about what you ingest. Fertilizers are used in herbs, vegetables and edible ornamentals. They are something you can’t just wash off in the kitchen sink.

Then it dawned on Traven. “We had to start growing a little differently,” even though it’s not in high demand from most of his customers.

What’s In It?

Lloyd Traven and his wife Candy eased into the organic process by utilizing softer chemicals. Using 40 percent less volume per acre, they also made the most of fewer applications and targeted applications.

Currently seeking organic certification through the state of California, Lloyd’s biggest challenge “by far” is fertilizer. “It’s not a science like conventional fertilizers,” says Traven. “They’ve got that stuff nailed down.”

Take It To The Lab

Laurie Nack of Plug Connection explains that organic growing doesn’t fit into one mold, and that it’s necessary to go through a good deal of trialing with organic fertilizers to find out what works best.

“Plug Connection took different fertilizers mixed with our greenhouse production water and sent them to the lab for analysis testing.

“We found some fertilizers had high levels of alkalinity, sodium, chloride and boron. And depending on ambient temperature we realized the plant processes these organic fertilizers differently. Keeping the temperature warmer (above 55ºF) the plant can convert the food better.”

With a high quality compost, worm castings and compost tea, Traven wants the soil to be the primary component. “The compost tea will activate all the goodness that’s already in the soil and make whatever fertilizer we use extremely efficient,” he adds. “Once a week we’ll supplement with an organic liquid fish fertilizer in addition to the compost tea.”

Traven has full confidence in his final product. “There is no rational excuse to affect the quality of your plants. I actually expect our stuff to look better.”

Another issue Traven has commonly come across when looking into OMRI listed fertilizers is getting answers to his questions. In regard to fertilizer companies, “They just don’t know,” says Traven. He goes on to say that there aren’t enough people at these companies who can answer questions clearly, “and that’s a real problem.”

“If you cannot get a clear answer on how it’s made and what’s in it, walk away,” he advises. “We just want to know if we can use it or not. And if we can, you need to show us documentation to prove that.”

From The Bottom Up

For a large-scale grower, Elzinga and Hoeksema Greenhouses (E&H) has led by example and really given a voice to the organic side of production. A voice Lloyd Traven has listened to and sought out to help get his organic feet under him.

“We don’t use that many fertilizers,” says E&H grower Roger Rosenthal. “In true organic sense, we’re trying to start with the soil and build microbial life in it.” To spur that on, Rosenthal promotes compost-enriched soil. Over the top, E&H uses a compost tea brewed from worm castings.

“Along with that, we’ll use fish emulsion once in awhile,” adds Roger. Both Rosenthal and Traven expressed their satisfaction with Dramm’s fish emulsion. This soil amendment delivers the soil a cornucopia of macro and micronutrients required for vigorous plant growth, and also naturally occurring compounds that improve nutrient availability. And keep in mind, fish emulsion does not smell like roses. It takes a little getting used to.

Like Peace Tree Farm, E&H is certified organic through California, a state known for its tough certification process.
A family-owned garden center/market, in Chicago, also an E&H customer, is responsible for the grower’s transition into organics. “This family had a problem with cancer, so they decided to sell and eat organic,” says Rosenthal. “Since the switch, their cancer went into remission,” which had a big impact on Mark Elzinga’s decision.

“Our goal is to supply a plant that can actually sustain itself much better than a conventionally grown one,” explains Rosenthal. “With conventional methods, plants are really only staying healthy with what we’re putting over the top. With this approach, they should keep cycling the microbes after they’ve left here.”

Rosenthal testifies that organic fertilizers help increase disease repression and can also act as a growth regulator. He has generally seen thicker, broader leaves and well-toned plants.

While E&H may be on top of things, staying on top isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to finding certified inputs. “There aren’t a lot of companies out there used to dealing with large scale greenhouses,” admits Rosenthal. “It’s been kind of a grass roots process. It’s a challenge to find something both certified and economical.”

Rosenthal jokingly added that the biggest challenge of all is getting stores to water the plants properly. Something all growers can relate to.

Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.

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